Like many professions, becoming a Physician Assistant today requires more education than it used to. Today, students will usually need to complete a Master’s degree and pass the National Certification Exam, while in the past, PAs could have certificates, Associate’s degrees, or Bachelor’s degrees as training. Colleges for physician assistant training are expanding options, allowing students to take some, or even all, their courses online.
If you are already a practicing PA, you may want to update your skills and degree to equal those who are just entering the profession. Your years of experience in the field are very valuable, but you want to keep your edge by having the higher degree status of new graduates. How can you do this? Well, one way is to choose one of the online PA programs that will lead to a Master’s degree. For students with a bachelor’s degree in another subject, it can be possible to attend a hybrid online PA program to enter the field.
Some programs to get a Master of Science will require some on-campus learning, but there are some 100% online options for working PAs to upgrade their degrees. Many of these rigorous programs accommodate working students, while others discourage working during the intensive training. Some programs can take students through all the general education that will include finishing a Bachelor’s degree on the way to the Master’s degree, while others require a BS before you enter. The time-commitment varies from a minimum of 12 months to three years, and many programs will allow you to take up to five years to finish if you wish.
The degrees conferred can vary, with the Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) being common. Other degrees can be Master of Medical Science (MMSc), Master of Science-PA (MSPA), and others. Along with passing the PANCE exam and gaining licensure in your state, a Master’s degrees is considered terminal for a Physician Assistant. Each program has a focus, with many programs focusing on primary care or rural and underserved populations. Programs usually allow you to choose a subject of specialty, and these can include many areas of medicine. All of the programs are part didactic and part clinical practice in varied settings.
Why Choose an ARC-PA Accredited Program?
For general educational programs, most colleges and universities are accredited by a regional board that checks quality of education, financial soundness, and other factors in determining which schools qualify. For your bachelor’s or associate’s degree, your school was most likely accredited by one of these regional authorities recognized by the US Dept of Education. These programs use outside people, usually academics from other schools, to evaluate each university.
However, for special programs for particular professions, there are separate agencies that accredit the program using peer review by experts. It would be silly to have an English professor evaluate the quality of education in a program that leads to a degree for a Physician’s Assistant, right? The evaluator should know what type of education, training, and requirements will produce a good physician’s assistant. It stands to reason that you want to attend one of the online physician assistant programs that has been vetted by people who know what makes a great program to prepare you for this healthcare career.
ARC-PA accredited programs will meet the highest standards, and therefore, your degree will do more to get you better jobs than any other type of program. People in the field know that graduates of ARC-PA approved programs have the best education, and that is who will be hiring you! So it is worth the trouble to make sure your degree will advance your career, allow you to take the national exam, and be licensed.
Application requirements vary, and many schools accept applications through the CAPSA online system, though some also take applications directly. International students are welcome in some programs, though there are additional requirements, including English proficiency. Most programs don’t require the GRE tests, but some do. Many programs weigh candidates applications with both academic performance and demonstrated commitment to the healthcare field balanced.
One thing you will notice about physician assistant education is that each program is different. Though all programs accredited by ARC-PA are up to standards, they can vary in intensity, time required, and type of degree offered. As you look to expand your skills as a PA, look carefully at the options to find a program that will best meet your needs.
Visit our career guide for a step-by-step look at how to become a PA from scratch.
ARC-PA Accredited Hybrid Online PA Programs
Hybrid programs have some on-campus classes required, but also offer some of the classes in an online format. Some programs are mostly online with short campus visits, while others are more in-person with just a bit of online learning to add to the flexibility of the program. Most of the hybrid programs will lead to a master’s degree, but there is one bachelor’s option (Miami Dade College).
Some hybrid programs can work for students who live far away and just travel to campus for short, intensive sessions, but others require you to live in commuting distance from the campus. Most programs are post-professional and require students to have either a bachelor’s degree or be a practicing PA, or both. Generally, an undergraduate, residential degree of some type is needed before entering these programs, and all programs have some prerequisite science courses before going towards a PA degree online. Most programs will want you to have hands-on patient experience, and many of them have preferential admission for military service members.
1. Miami Dade College
2. University of Washington
3. University of North Dakota
4. University of Wisconsin – Madison
5. Sacred Heart University
6. University of Detroit Mercy
ARC-PA Online PA Programs for Degree Completion
To add a master’s degree to your credentials as a PA, all while continuing to work and take care of your family, these fully online degree completion programs offer an attractive route. These programs require no visits to campus, and can be completed 100% online and with clinical experiences in your community. Some programs allow you to go slower or faster, as your schedule allows, while others have a particular order of classes that you need to follow. For flexibility, these programs can get you the education you want without disrupting your normal life.
1. University of Nebraska Medical Center
2. University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley
3. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences
4. Stony Brook University
5. Nova Southeastern University
6. Marywood University
7. Pace University – New York
8. Yale University
Do I Really Need ARC-PA Accreditation?
The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, or ARC-PA, does a thorough examination of the programs that it accredits. If you want to be a Physician Assistant, you need to pass the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE), and to take the PANCE, you need to graduate from an ARC-PA accredited program. So yes, you do need to find an ARC-PA accredited program if you want to sit for the national exam. Licensure laws vary from state to state, so check with your state before you enroll in an online program—you want to make sure that the program you choose will be recognized when you go to get your state license as a PA.
The standards set by ARC-PA include making sure there is enough funding to adequately operate the program, a separate Program Director and Medical Director, experienced faculty, curriculum that will meet the outcomes for students, and clinical experiences that include training in all necessary skills to be a PA. The program must be constantly reevaluating courses, curriculum, procedures, and implementation to improve and maintain the quality education that is advertised to students. ARC-PA has seven different types of accreditation, including “continued” for programs who continue to meet standards, “provisional” for new programs that plan to meet the standards, and “probation” which means the program has been told to shape up but is still approved. As long as a program is accredited when you enter, your education should be recognized.
Working in healthcare is a great career with many opportunities, and becoming a PA or furthering your education may be the right direction for you. There is estimated to be a 37% increase in the number of PA jobs available between 2016-2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you want flexibility as you increase your credentials, an online or hybrid program may be for you. But do check to make sure the program has ARC-PA accreditation—otherwise, you might find that your options for further study and employment are limited.